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News brief: Senate passes major bill, Blinken in South Africa, health poll


Senate Democrats have passed a major climate health care and tax bill after months of negotiations.


It is a centerpiece of President Biden's agenda.


CHUCK SCHUMER: It's been a long, tough and winding road. But at last - at last - we have arrived.

MARTÍNEZ: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer celebrated the Inflation Reduction Act clearing the Senate, with Vice President Harris breaking the 50-50 tie.

FADEL: NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now with more. Good morning.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So Deirdre, how did the Democrats finally push the bill through the Senate?

WALSH: Well, this is a major win for President Biden. And it came well after a year of internal squabbles between moderates and progressives about the size and the scope of the proposal. Remember, Democrats were initially looking at a $3.5 trillion package. And this is roughly 700 billion. But Schumer and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin secretly renewed talks about 10 days ago to put together this framework. Many Democrats were skeptical it would actually happen after Manchin had repeatedly pulled back from negotiations, citing inflation concerns - the last time, just days before the deal was announced. Democrats also needed the vote of Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema. They were able to get her on board after taking out a tax provision targeting hedge funds that she opposed.

FADEL: So what's in the bill?

WALSH: Several significant policy changes. This represents the largest federal investment in climate and energy policy. It has roughly $370 billion for things like tax credits for electric vehicles and money for renewable energy programs. Democrats say these investments are going to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% from 2005 levels by the end of this decade. Here's Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey on what this means.


ED MARKEY: Very few pieces of legislation will ever make the kind of impact that this climate bill will have, not just for the United States, but for the entire world.

WALSH: To get Manchin on board, there are provisions for new leases for oil and gas production and also a commitment to pass permitting legislation separately.

FADEL: What about the health care and tax policies?

WALSH: This bill is going to lower the cost of some prescription drugs by allowing Medicare to negotiate the prices of certain medications. It will also cap out-of-pocket costs for people on Medicare to about $2,000 per year starting in 2025. The drug industry has lobbied against these things for years, so getting this through was a really big deal. The bill also extends the subsidies for the Affordable Care Act that were part of a pandemic aid relief bill for three more years. And the taxes in this bill include a 15% corporate minimum tax and an excise tax on stock buybacks. They're going to bring in roughly $300 billion in new revenue that will help pay down the deficit.

FADEL: OK. So what happens next with the bill?

WALSH: So the House is scheduled to return from its recess this Friday. And it's expected to approve the bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has a really small margin. And again, we don't expect any Republican votes. So she's going to have to keep her caucus together. But we're less than three months from the midterms. And Democrats are really eager to move beyond these internal splits and talk about the accomplishments they've been able to get through Congress just in the last few months. They've passed bipartisan gun reform, veterans' health care bill, a bill boosting semiconductor chip production in the U.S. But this domestic energy, climate and health care bill for many is a centerpiece for Democrats, especially those in tight races in the November midterms. Republicans are going to argue that more federal spending is a bad move with record inflation right now. But there is bipartisan support for things like lowering prescription drug costs.

FADEL: That's NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh. Thanks so much.

WALSH: Thank you.


FADEL: Secretary of State Antony Blinken is holding high-level talks in South Africa and laying out a new strategy for U.S. relations in the region.

MARTÍNEZ: The U.S. is vying for influence on the continent, seeking to counter China's involvement and shape the narrative around the war in Ukraine. Blinken's trip follows recent visits from top Russian and Chinese officials.

FADEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary and joins us from Pretoria. Hi, Michele.


FADEL: So Michele, what's the secretary of state's message there?

KELEMEN: So South Africa is kind of a key regional player, so it's fitting that he started his Africa swing here. He's also planning, this week, to visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. And there are some common themes in all of these places. The secretary wants to talk about food security in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He wants to talk about climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, other big problems that are facing the continent. And he's telling Africans that the U.S. really wants to be a partner in tackling all of this.

FADEL: Now, in that long list, you mentioned the war in Ukraine. Russia's foreign minister was just in Africa, too. How much is the U.S. in competition with Moscow on the continent?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, Blinken says that the U.S. has interests in Africa that go beyond this geopolitical game, that this trip isn't just about countering Russian or Chinese influence. But it is clearly an area of concern. For instance, Blinken's making the case that - in the region that they shouldn't buy into the Russian propaganda about Ukraine. The Russians argue that U.S. sanctions are to blame for a global food crisis. Blinken points out that it's Russia that's been blocking Ukrainian ports and stealing Ukrainian food stocks. He thinks that Russia only agreed to a U.N.-brokered deal to allow some ships to leave Ukrainian ports because Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov heard a lot of concerns about this during his recent trip to Africa. So Blinken wants countries in the region, really, to keep up that pressure on Russia.

FADEL: Now let's talk about China. It's a country that has invested a lot in Africa. China's in a major diplomatic feud with Washington following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. How is Blinken handling that?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, he's been trying to reassure leaders that he met on this trip - he was in Asia earlier, actually - that the U.S. is not seeking any conflict with Beijing. He believes China is using the Pelosi visit as a pretext for a military buildup around Taiwan. He also says that China's decision to cut off diplomatic talks with the U.S. in key areas, including climate change, doesn't really punish the U.S., but punishes the developing world, places like South Africa. China is the world's largest emitter of CO2, so walking away from climate talks hurts everyone. That's the case that he's been making. And it's a theme he's likely to continue to press on this trip.

FADEL: OK. All of this sounds like concerns the U.S. has been raising for years about China's influence in Africa.

KELEMEN: Yeah. And Blinken doesn't want African nations to feel like he's making them choose between China and the U.S. He wants to show that the U.S. can be a good partner on all the issues he's been talking about. The real question is whether the U.S. is really going to invest in Africa or just give speeches about it.

FADEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you.


FADEL: Results of a new poll published today finds significant racial disparities when it comes to paying for and accessing health care in the U.S.

MARTÍNEZ: The poll looks at the experience of the five largest racial and ethnic groups in some key spheres of American life. It was commissioned by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee joins us to discuss the results and her own reporting. Hi, Rhitu.


FADEL: So I know this poll covers a lot, but what were some of the big takeaways?

CHATTERJEE: Some of the most striking findings were really about just how hard it is for certain racial and ethnic minorities to make ends meet. In fact, more than half of Black and Latino households report that the recent price increases driven by inflation have caused them serious financial problems. It's even higher among Native Americans, with that number rising to more than two-thirds of those surveyed. And this was a poll conducted between mid-May and mid-June of this year. And it included more than 4,000 adults.

FADEL: When you say serious financial problems, what exactly does that look like?

CHATTERJEE: Yeah. So basically, you know, it's about people's ability to pay for basic necessities like food and housing has been hampered. So a majority of respondents said that lack of affordable houses to buy in their neighborhoods was a serious problem. And rents aren't affordable either. And when it comes to evictions, Black Americans are carrying most of the burden. Sixteen percent said they have either been evicted or threatened with eviction, compared to only 9% of white respondents. And about a third of Latino and Black respondents and 40% of Native Americans said they're having serious problems paying for food. Robert Blendon is a public health professor at Harvard and was co-director of the new NPR poll.

ROBERT BLENDON: The acute needs caught us a bit off guard, that people in this period, when we're all suffering from inflation and everything else, are at high risk for either being homeless or actually not being able to feed their families.

CHATTERJEE: And a greater proportion of Black Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are having trouble affording medical care or prescription drugs compared to whites and Asians.

FADEL: So the findings showing, really, how difficult it is to pay for life. What did the poll find about access to medical care?

CHATTERJEE: So the poll focused in on people who had serious illness in their household in the past year. And of those, 19% overall said they'd had trouble accessing care. But for Black Americans, that number was 24%. Mary Findling is the associate director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program.

MARY FINDLING: Two and a half years into the pandemic, with no end in sight, it's really scary that a quarter of our country's Black families who've dealt with serious illnesses couldn't get care when they needed it.

CHATTERJEE: And we know that that means serious consequences on people's health. And given that doctors' offices, clinics, hospitals are still reeling from the pressures of the pandemic, these delays persist across the board and are likely to be affecting health outcomes for a while.

Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.